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Collective Bargaining the Chicago Way.

June 15, 2012

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to the news media after casting her ballot during a strike authorization vote at a Chicago high school

It’s kind of like they never took Chicago teachers seriously.

Now some do.

Some still don’t.

Some self-described labor relations experts tell us that the strike authorization vote is all just part of the normal collective bargaining process.

And that’s true.

But a 98% yes vote (And here I choose to use the way the entire world looks at vote results: as a percent of those voting, rather than the Jonah Edeleman – Senate Bill 7 way. If we use the Edelman – SB7 model, Rahm Emanuel only got 21% of the vote for mayor.) has implications beyond the traditional way in which we look at the collective bargaining process.

These negotiations are taking place in the middle of a fierce national assault on public employee collective bargaining rights. The assault is not just following the Wisconsin model, where a Republican Tea-Party Governor directly confronts the public sector unions and gets his legislature to outright ban collective bargaining.

Illinois is a different model: A Democratic governor and Democratic Party controlled General Assembly that chips away at public employee union rights with the cooperation of a compliant state union leadership.

This means that when Chicago teachers elected a reform leadership that promised to fight for what was fair and for what was best for public education, and then when that leadership actually followed through on its campaign promises, this collective bargaining process took on more meaning.

Even the Chicago Sun-Times, owned by close pals of the Mayor, see what the vote results mean:

Emanuel pushed for a change in state law that raised the strike authorization threshold to 75 percent, a benchmark so high, at least one education advocate with ties to the mayor predicted that it could never be met.

Instead, the Chicago Teachers Union roared passed that benchmark, fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously-negotiated, four percent pay raise and tried to muscle through a longer school day.

Still, the $250,000 a year CPS CEO JC Brizard, refuses to acknowledge the teachers’ message.

“The Chicago Teachers Union leadership pushed their members to authorize a strike before giving them the opportunity to consider the independent fact finder’s compromise report due in July. That’s a shame.”

Did Brizard see the rally at the Auditorium on the 23rd of May? Did he hear the teachers calling for Rahm to go as they marched down Michigan Avenue? Did they really seem pushed to him? Can you push 98% of the teachers to vote for something they don’t want?

Silly man.

Brizard’s response is to stall. When the same Sun-Times editorially slammed the CTU for failing to bargain, President Karen Lewis set them straight: It is Brizard who is failing to bargain.

The truth is that the Board of Education has refused to bargain on issues of vital importance to students, parents and teachers.

They have outright refused to negotiate about class size, even though Chicago has some of the highest class sizes in the county and the state. The district has refused to bargain about art, music, world language and physical education classes, even though 40 percent of our schools are without a full-time art or music programs. The city has refused to discuss playground facilities or libraries, even though 98 schools have no playgrounds and 160 schools are without libraries.

The board has also refused to negotiate staffing levels for nurses, counselors, school psychologists and social workers even though the ratio is at levels set in the 1960s, one-third of the number of school specialists currently needed in our schools.

Lastly, the district has refused to discuss ways to honor and develop experience in the classroom by making it more difficult for highly qualified and experienced educators to remain in a system that every year engages in massive layoffs, contributing to half of all teachers leaving the system every five years. Certainly CPS is not obligated to bargain the fact that out of the 10 largest cities we have the third-highest student-to-nurse and student-to-counselor ratios. However, it is in the best interests of children for CPS to figure out these vitally important concerns with the experts who have to teach every day.

The CTU would be in dereliction of our duty if we did not demand high-quality public education and dignified learning conditions in our contract negotiations. Instead of allowing CPS to hide behind its right not to bargain important matters to our schools, the Sun-Times, and others, should demand that they do.

Here is what I know about collective bargaining. If allowed to proceed without legislative interference, it works. A strike vote is part of the process. A mediator is often part of the process. Even silly posturing by the CEO is part of the process. A strike can sometimes be part of the process.

What is important here is that Chicago is reminding the nation, including some other union leadership, that the collective bargaining process works.

In times like this, that’s a major message.

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